A shift dress is a short, sleeveless dress that hangs from the shoulders. It is suitable for all body types and sizes—anyone can wear the solid design. The dress is customarily worn alone or with stockings. It has been popular since the 1960s. Though it is easy to shift or move around in a “shift dress,” the term signifies a shift in culture. When the dress became popular in the late 1950s, American youth culture was at its height. The dress represented the youthful, free and revolutionary attitudes of the time.
The shift dress is short and straight with a simple line. It hangs loose on the body from the shoulders and is held together by side panels. The dress is sleeveless with a short hemline. The neckline is high, typically with a boat-neck collar. Additional features may include collars, an A-line skirt (where the dress is widest at its base), or an empire waist.
The dress has almost no detailing, beyond side panels and breast darts. The waist is de-emphasized. This allows women to move around freely without constraints.The dresses are not form-fitting. They downplay and sometimes conceal feminine curves and contours, except the limbs.
The shift dress is particularly popular with young to middle-aged women. It is suitable for girls. The short hemlines and boxy cut may not appeal to older women, but the style is timeless and flattering. As an “Everywoman” dress, the shift holds a democratic appeal in fashion.
The dress is a versatile and convenient wardrobe staple. It is appropriate for professional, personal or party environments. The design is slimming and comfortable. The shift converts well from day to night, travels easily and can be worn for almost any occasion. Its universally appealing cut and style take the guesswork out of outfit planning. It remains a celebrated design and easy fashion choice.
Shift dresses are easy to make. They can be produced and purchased rather cheaply, though some high-end designs are expensive. Shift dresses may be customized to achieve different looks. They can be accessorized to individual tastes and signature styles.
The shift dress can be traced back to the 1920s flapper trends. Dresses of that era, particularly those of Coco Chanel, featured exposed legs and arms, simple cuts, loose shapes and little waist definition. This was a move away from corsets and offered women both style and ease of movement,
According to fashion expert and costume historian Pauline Weston Thomas, the shift dress was derived from the “sack dress” (resembling a food sack)—designed by Hubert Givenchy in Paris—and the fitted sheath dress designs of the 1950s. The shift dress became popular by 1958.
Other historians argue that the shift dress was introduced into popular culture by Lilly Pulitzer, who sold the dresses at her lemonade stand. The Lilly Dress was noted for its bright colors and playful fabrics. The dress was then glamorized by First Lady and fashion icon Jackie Kennedy as well as trendsetting actress Audrey Hepburn.
Shift dresses of the 1960s signified a new trend in women’s clothing. They promoted independence, modernity and a redefinition of the female shape. The design was at once feminine and androgynous, youthful and ageless. Its popularity spanned form the First Lady to the high school student. The shift dress was a hallmark of the Sexual Revolution. It allowed women to dance, move and work at liberty. It united style and comfort. It was sensationally short and revealing.
In many respects, the shift is a symbol of youth culture. The cut is all about mobility, exposure and casual ease. Fans like its trendiness, loose fit and understated style. The dress favors women with small busts, slim frames and long legs, reinforcing the adolescent Twiggy or pixie look of the 1960s. It remains a youth staple.
The shift dress has many manifestations. It can be worn in all seasons: With sandals in the summer, with boots and coats in fall, tights and sweaters in winter and scarves and heels in spring. It can be dressed up with a jacket and pearls, glamorized with gloves and diamonds, dressed down with comfy flats or sneakers and thrown on over a bathing suit for a day at the beach.
Depending on the fabric, color and texture, a shift dress can create a variety of looks. A plain white or black shift is chic and seductive. A brightly colored shift in bold patterns is fun and flirtatious. A pastel shift with bows is innocent and girlish. A fuzzy shift in neon says “wild and crazy.” A gray, navy or tweed shift is sensible and elegant. A leather shift is cool and contemporary.